Two headlines. “Wave of Oregonians nearing end of benefits” and “Automated and efficient” on the front page of last Sunday’s newspaper in our little southern Oregon village. Separate. But connected in a most human way. And the connection isn’t good.

While the “automated and efficient” story touted technology at Roseburg Forest Products operations, the real human news underlying that reality is being played out here and across the nation. As old industries like logging and manufacturing become more technologically efficient, jobs disappear. By the thousands. Hundreds of thousands.

The recession has killed off 7.9 million jobs says Lakshman Achuthan, respected director of the Economic Cycle Research Institute. He figures “job losses during this recession were so off-the-chart that, even though 600,000 private sector jobs are back, we’ve got 8 million jobs to go.”

If rehiring was about 200,000 jobs a month, he says, double what it really is, it would take til 2013 to recapture just jobs lost. Add to that, a working age population that grows by about 150,000 people a month. So the hole gets deeper as we go.

Then there’s this. Nationally, the Labor Department says 1.2 million people have stopped looking even as their unemployment benefits run out. These “discouraged workers” as they’re called, don’t show up in monthly unemployment numbers, meaning they statistically don’t exist because no one counts them anymore.

Now, add still one another log on the fire. Many people out of work … could be most of them … lost jobs in industries not expected to return to their glory days. Timber and manufacturing are two among many. That means, according to Wells Fargo chief economist John Silva, “We’ve got the wrong people in the wrong place with the wrong skills.”

While these are national statistics, the very painful human reality is being played out in small Oregon communities like ours. Played out in spades! With newfound efficiencies and high tech equipment, RFP, Weyerhauser and the other timber movers-and-shakers will never see the large payrolls of former days. One example is the Murphy plywood plant in Sutherlin, Oregon, destroyed by fire several years ago. Oh, it’s rebuilt and humming right along. But all that humming is being done by about half the previous workers. Technology.

Consider also, no paycheck and no unemployment check. So who’ll buy the goods and services the rest of us offer? Grocery stores, car dealers, banks, shoe stores, department stores, advertising. Little by little, the ripples will reach everybody in town. For some, waiting to get through this national disaster, the wait will be too long.

Well, that’s a lot of bad news. Much more than I’d like to convey. So, is there anything we can do about it? There is one powerful tool. But it’s going to take some intestinal fortitude for a lot of these people to use it. Retraining. Re-education. Now!

Some months ago, during a minor surgery procedure at our local hospital, I was attended to by a nurse. Over six feet. Large, scarred hands. A 200 pound former logger. He was as good and as gentle as any nurse I’ve encountered in my long life. He lost a job some years ago, thought about the future, sucked it up and enrolled in a nursing program.

I’ve often wondered what it took for him to enter that classroom on the first day with about 25 chattering, giggling teenage girls. It took guts. It took an inner strength for this rough-and-tumble woodsman to say, “That’s behind me. This is what I’ve got to do.” Then do it!

Major silver mines in North Idaho closed in the 80’s. But there are hundreds of guys still waiting for them to reopen. An Internet car dealer in Kellogg now parks his huge inventory on what were once school playgrounds, empty store and abandoned church parking lots, closed streets that aren’t needed anymore. We can’t let that happen to all the small timber towns inthe Northwest!

There are scholarships, government and private grants, low interest loans and other economic aids available if you look. May not be there long if there’s no short term recovery. But they’re out there now. Nursing, computer repair, software design, auto repair, merchandising, physical therapy, law enforcement, barbering and cosmetology. And more.

I strongly believe education … re-education … is the best tool we have to get millions working again. The reality is it’s not easy in mid-life to close the door on all you’ve ever known and begin all over. From scratch. It’s tough. It takes guts. It takes strength you may never have used. Or thought you had.

But it can be done. My wood-chopper nurse can vouch for that.

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